What is your purpose as a leader



What is your purpose as a leader?  Is it not to help your employees love the work they do, to help them find that sweet spot where they are making the world – even the tiny space they occupy – a better place. There are a few points I want to make to (hopefully) illustrate just how far away from true leadership we have gone. In some cases we have found ‘alternatives’ to doing the difficult work of a leader and wrongfully equated them to leadership. Leadership is about people first, second, third and always.

Work-life balance is a luxury leaders can no longer afford

If you are a leader in your organisation and you do not spend time – hours, days even – thinking about your employees then you are sure to miss a crucial opportunity to engage meaningfully when you are with them. When your job wholly depends on the people under you then shouldn’t the majority (all?)of your focus and energy go into these people?

“Of course it should!” is the immediate answer often said with a look of incredulity and insulted surprise that someone would actually ask such a silly question. Well let’s look at your current boss. Do you believe s/he spends time thinking about you outside of work? I’m not talking about a passing thought about work in general, I mean a targeted specific session at home to think about where you are going, what makes you tick, how s/he will use this to make you a better leader. I’m talking about holding conversations in the shower with you in your absence. Plotting potential career paths for you that s/he will later engage you on, not because her/his boss or HR has now said they need a certain position filled but because s/he genuinely feels that you are capable of doing that job and that it fits with both of your ideas of career progression. Thinking about your gaps and the best way to help you close them while having a beer on a Sunday afternoon. Do you believe your boss spends this much time on you? Do you believe s/he should? Do you believe you should? If not, why not? Are you then going to try to do this in the work place? May as well try to do your MBA in your office.

Leadership is a profession and must be treated as one. We spend time and money extending our technical knowledge or working on that assignment or project for the entire weekend. Yet we don’t do the same for our people. If you can spend an entire Saturday evening working on a presentation surely you can spend the same amount of time working on your people.

I can see you saying that’s just ridiculous, when do you spend time with your family? What about work-life balance?! The MD of a company I used to work for said it quite nicely: it doesn’t exist. If you’re looking for a work-life balance you’re doing the wrong job. I would put it slightly differently: work-life balance is a luxury leaders can no longer afford. This is where Conrad’s quote becomes critical for you as a leader. After all, if you don’t like what you are doing how can you be expected to take it home with you? Another behaviour I’ve never understood is the people who are out the door of the office and out the gate religiously at knock-off time, every single day. These people cannot wait to leave the office. How much do you dislike your job that every single day you can’t wait to leave it? Even worse when you are a leader in your organisation! Do you not cherish those after-hours chats with your employees? Catching up on their lives, getting better insights into the people they are. These times when their guard is down and they open to you are gold.

Leadership is work and must be treated as such. It is not a means to an end, a way of delivering results. It is a calling and unfortunately too often people who do not subscribe to it as such are called into it. Your own leadership is to be analysed constantly and constantly improved. If you’re not doing this you’re not in the right game.

Work is love made visible

  • A friend posted this on Facebook (which inspired me to write this post):

“I don’t like work… but I like what is in work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – which no other man can ever know.”

It’s a quote by Joseph Conrad. I didn’t know who he was so I looked him up. Fewer professions can provide the sentiments he makes above than writing. Leading people is one of them.

I can honestly say I found myself when I was leading people. I can honestly say I don’t know if I did it well or not but I know I found my own reality. I created it every day with the people I was leading. I don’t know how successful as a leader I was (you can never know this but for your people – the moment you think you can do a self-analysis on your leadership you’re dead in the water; you must strive to do better than your last attempt no matter how successful it was) but I believe I would have been immeasurably less successful had I not enjoyed what I was doing.

So knowing this it only makes sense that I work hard to make sure that I help my employees achieve the same opportunity to find themselves, and create their own reality in the work.

Another friend asked on Facebook (yes sometimes value adding conversations do take place on Facebook!) if it was better to be feared than to be loved as a leader. The answer was instantly clear to me, it is never better to be feared. There is no scenario out there in the known universe where this is the case. Some people confuse fear for respect or, even worse, think it can be applied to get respect. I have found that these people are usually novices at the leadership game; they still have a few bumps and bruises of experience to get through. One of the questions that usually come up at this point is the question on delivery of results. It is here that it becomes apparent that people, on top of confusing fear with respect, also confuse love with weakness. An article in the HBR Blog Network titled What Stops Leaders from Showing Compassion addressed this very question. One of the commenters wrote this which summed it perfectly for me: “At the risk of stating the obvious, the leader without compassion is leaderless. Heart with backbone are quintessential points on the compass of life in whatever endeavour.”

This has to be genuine though. It cannot be an implementation of something that you have been told by a leadership coach. If you do not believe then something has to happen to convince you, a paradigm shift, or you are simply not suitable to be a leader. You have to believe with every bone in your body that your people come first, that if you help them be the best they can be they will deliver the best results they can. And you have to believe all of this will be done with love and compassion and not fear.

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”Kahlil Gibran

I don’t believe there is a better way to say it and something of which your employees must constantly be reminded.

Fear of competition from followers

Finally there is this competition that some ‘leaders’ create with their employees. A fellow blogger perhaps articulates it slightly different here in an article called Causes of Leadership Failure – Fear of Competition from Followers. He suggests here that the reason for this fear, and hence the competition, is a practical one, that the employee will one day take his job or, for private business, become competition to him. He then lists reasons why this fear makes no sense. And I fully agree with his reasons. Where I differ slightly from him are the reasons for the competition in the first place, sure there are those individuals who have that fear that their jobs may be at risks from their subordinates. But in my experience there are usually two types of people who engage in this competition, the ones who have climbed the ladder relatively fast and have set records within the organisation and ones who took an unusually long time to get to where they are and often think others (usually their own employees) must take the same amount of time to get there.

We are all in competition with each other. We want to come first, be the only one to have achieved this, the youngest to have achieved that, the quickest to have risen through the ranks. As leaders, we need to rise above this individualism. Years from now no one will care how fast you rose through the ranks, or how old you were when you promoted.  They will only care what impact you have made in people’s lives and the business. What legacy you have left behind.

Your purpose as a leader to allow, and even help, your subordinates to surpass the standards that you have set and not be envious of them. If they fail the accountability must rest with you as a leader first and then with them.

We all aspire to greatness. We all wish and dream about that moment when we will be pronounced as great leaders. Great leaders know that the standard has been set and if they wish to be pronounced as great leaders then they need to set a new standard. The greatest leaders do not aspire to be great leaders themselves but rather to build great leaders.

Martin Luther King Jr said that “All labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” And this is what the greatest leaders seek to achieve and the legacy they wish to leave behind, an uplifting of humanity.


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